242-243: Rockaway Needs Help

Today I need to move away from my overwhelming sense of gratitude that Sandy did not affect us worse and talk about how badly it did affect so many on the Rockaway peninsula.

A generator-powered phone-charging station set up around the corner from my house. You can easy spend half a day first waiting on line and then waiting for a full charge.

I need everyone to understand how dire the situation is. There is no heat and the temperature dips to 30 degrees at night. There is no electricity, and so people clamor around mobile power stations to charge their phones and electronics. There is practically no cell phone service, so as soon as you cross the bridges you are in a dead zone. No texts, no phone calls, no way to tell people that you are okay or — worse — that you need help. The Mayor sent out notice that the water is not safe to drink. But since no one has Internet access or working TVs, how can people know that?

There are lines everywhere. Lines stretch around the block at mobile power stations. There are lines for food and water being given out by FEMA and The American Red Cross. And everyone, everyone, is in need of gasoline, mostly for their generators because nearly everyone’s car was flooded and is undriveable.

Which leads to the sense of being absolutely, completely trapped. The subways aren’t running. Cars are piled up as if a child was playing with a set of Matchbox cars. The buses that do come through are packed with people trying to get out of Rockaway and back to civilization.

The storm surge tossed cars around like they were a child’s toys.

The crashing waves used to be the heartbeat of Rockaway. Now it is gasoline-powered generators being used to fuel sump pumps. A friend of mine estimated he pumped 42,000 gallons of water out of his basement on the first day of pumping. The water reached the ceiling in his cellar.

Generators hummed at Veggie Island, a hipster enclave next to the oft-reported awesomeness of Rockaway Taco. (As a neighbor of mine said perfectly on Facebook: “New York Times, where are you? You were here for tacos, where are you now?”) Young surfers handed out free diapers, hot coffee, steaming bowls of pasta to anyone who needed it. I brought all the non-perishable and non-flooded items from my kitchen, along with bags of old kids’ toys and books. I asked what else they needed and we promised to bring back gas, sweaters and candles.

Everyone looks like a mess. We’re all wearing the same clothes we’ve been wearing for three days. Those who have stayed each night, and there are many, haven’t showered in days. NY1 Reporter Bob Hardt, a Rockaway resident who has been blogging about the disaster, made this great point about the diversity of impact throughout Rockaway. Uptown is the wealthier part of Rockaway; the Hammels are our neighborhood housing project: “I took a long bike ride uptown this morning to Rockaway Park, Belle Harbor, and Neponsit. It’s stunning that while the structural damage there is much worse than here, people seem calmer because, I think, they are more affluent and have more resources at hand: Nobody in the nearby Hammels houses went away to Long Island for a few days and is now just popping back in to check on the situation at home.”

Many feel they need to stay to protect their property from looters. A friend told me that her neighbor’s brother, an NYPD officer, comes each night to set up a patrol on her block. The Veggie Island folks told me the nights are frightful, with groups of young people joyously running and laughing through the streets. “Anyone who is laughing while out there in the dark is up to no good,” one woman told me. Those who remain sit in the darkness, the doors barricaded, and eagerly await sunrise. Neighbors of mine, a couple in their 70s, refuse to leave because they fear what will happen to their home once they do.

But it’s the kids who break my heart. Mothers pushing babies in strollers through the middle of the street because the sidewalks are caked in mud. A little girl clasping on to the Cabbage Patch Doll that I gave her. Kids who are undoubtedly cold at night and not eating right. It’s heartbreaking.

There used to be a retaining wall under the boardwalk.

And then there’s the beach. Oh, the beach. My section of the boardwalk, where the boards were recently replaced with concrete, is the only portion that remains. Our sand dune is gone. Along Shore Front Parkway, the street closest to the ocean, mounds of sand stand 15 feet high. It looks like a blizzard has been through but instead of snow mounds, it’s sand. So much sand. As a friend of mine said, “I’m so glad this hurricane wasn’t named Bob or something. ‘Sandy’ is so appropriate. Look at all this sand!” Yes, dark humor has been a tremendous salve.

Plow trucks were needed to unearth one of Rockaway’s three main thoroughfares.

And then there’s the sadness. People who witnessed the storm are changed forever. One neighbor’s eyes are constantly glassy. She cooks food for neighbors on her still-working gas stove as a way to fight off the crying jags. When you see waves of water moving through your backyard and down your street, it changes your sense of safety. Another neighbor said he made a plan that if the water rose to the second floor, he was ready to bust a hole through a wall to access the tenant unit on the third floor. During the height of the storm, another neighbor’s son turned to her and asked, “Does this mean I won’t live to be a grown-up?” Another, who weathered the storm on the 10th floor of her beachfront apartment, said she felt the entire building sway and was sure she, her husband and two kids would die that night. So many others have said that they have no words to describe the sheer horror of witnessing the full power of the ocean. So many have said they were sure they were going to die, without an ounce of hyperbole.

I’m here in Connecticut where most are living their everyday lives, completely unaffected by this devastation. There are no lines for gas. The checkout person at Wal-Mart “doesn’t watch the news” and so had no idea that there were any people affected by Sandy.

But the effects will be long. They will linger for a lifetime. Few will ever ignore a Mayor’s evacuation order ever again. And many may never feel safe living so close to the ocean’s grasp. So much has been robbed. How long until the people recover?

To help Rockaway residents, contact Rockaway Emergency Plan or Rockaway Youth Task Force. Both have pages on Facebook.